Oslo Spektrum on Tour: asBUILT 22

6 November,1991, 8 pm:Accompanied by the cries of 9000 sweating girls, the five members of the American boyband New Kids On The Block enters Oslo Spektrum’s stage. According to one journalist, it felt “as if the world exploded”, and on some level, perhaps it had.[1]10 months had passed since A-HA opened the large arena the same year, but it was arguably NKOTB that brought the new  global pop culture of the 90’s to Oslo, paving the way for a decade of new icons: Britney, Justin, and “Disney on Ice.” For the next twenty years, Spektrum would host the largest events and the most elaborate stage shows, by some of the biggest stars in the entertainment business.

The building manifested the turn-of-the-century global culture industry, baked into the urban fabric of downtown Oslo. As an architectural programme, the Spektrum arena was well suited to the socio-cultural and political-economic climate of the early 1980s: Not only did it respond to the desire for new meeting grounds and public programs in the city core, it also gave Oslo the opportunity to host large-scale events that until then had been lost to arenas outside the urban core, and often, outside the Oslo  municipality, like in the nearby town Drammen: From 1978 and the following 12 years, the frugal but legendary  Drammenshallen sports arena gained an impressive pedigree of international artists. Nonetheless, after hosting Iron Maiden’s No Prayer on the Road Tour in November 1990, it was over: Spektrum quickly gained ground nationally as thearena for experiencing live concerts, virtually outperforming its purpose as byhall – a civic arena for the Oslo population.[2]And with it, the young architectural office LPO went from being themselves the “new kids on the block” to becoming one of Oslo’s leading architectural firms

Spektrum’s raison d’êtrewas its ability to alternate between arena rockspectacles and local sport events. As a brick-wrapped piece of urban infrastructure, it was a logistical marvel: Radiating from its black boxcore were layers of technical installations and circulation routes, which beyond the building’s curved facade blended with the downtown road system of Oslo. Its centrality, vehicle-accessible court floor and swift “rig and de-rig” systems made the building integral to the city’s hardware. Due to this proficiency, the arena quickly became somewhat of a band favourite, and a cherished testbed for rehearsing new sets before launching a tour.[3]But reducing Spektrum to an ornamented machine is a simplification of its agency as a multipurpose arena. Rather, the building can be regarded as a prolific part of Oslo’s public interiors, a civic building whose use and utility factor transcends the limits of its technical container. 

More than solely evaluating Spektrum based on its formal or functional performance as architecture, the building can perhaps best be interpreted as an architectural “work” set in the tension between architecture as artefact – the used object – and architecture as manufact – the made object. The small but not negligible semantic difference between the terms is meant to illustrate the point that any analysis of this largescale, multipurpose piece of urban architecture benefits from being informed by its morphogenesis, or making processes, and the contexts and controversiessurrounding its realization.[4]And as we shall see, the process of making – manufacture – saturates the Spektrum project on several levels, from its physical position in the urban morphology of Oslo to the iconography of its curved facade.  

THE ADVANTAGES OF PEOPLE WITH LEISURE PROBLEMS 

While the term “byhall” (directly translated as city hall) was more than compatible with the lingo linked to the “urban renaissance” of the early 1980s, it was not a novel concept. Neither was its location in Vaterland next to the Oslo Central Station. As early as in 1946, the mayor of Oslo made plans for a new downtown hotel and conference centre with music halls connected to a new byhall situated on Stjerneplassen, 200 meters from where Spektrum is located today.[5]While most hotel beds of Oslo were still were occupied by military units following the end of WWII, a visionary political administration planned to turn Oslo into an “ideal destination” for future tourists and visitors. The renowned architect Knut Knutsen had already been granted the commission for Hotell Viking, planned as a prudent and cheap folkehotell.However, when Oslo was chosen to host the 1952 Winter Olympics and Hotell Viking was planned to accommodate press and delegates, the project was rethought and oriented more towards lavish luxury than frugal simplicity. In the end, the municipality abandoned the byhallidea, and in the decade to come, the notion of a public downtown was overthrown by the 1960s urban renewal schemes.  

The redevelopment of Vaterland was initiated in the late 1950s, related to the extension of the Oslo subway eastwards, and the construction of “Grunnlinjen” – literally “the Baseline” – a road project set along the waterfront, whose northward flyover bridged the railway tracks and landed in the Vaterland area. As a result, large parts of the existing urban fabric were demolished. Following the demolition of the old slaughter halls and market that had been damaged by fire in 1974, the by now vast and barren areas of Vaterland became the location for the city’s bus station. In 1972, the large-scale downtown “Vaterland development”, a project long in the making, was re-launched as a 175.000 square-metre office, housing and shopping centre, revolving around mixed use, leisure and experience. The project designed by Platou Arkitekter created controversy within the Vaterland development company. Board member Ole Borge stated: “I do not understand why leisure activities necessarily should be located in the same areas as serious work functions; I doubt the benefit to society of attracting people with leisure problems to the city centre!”[6]Borge envisioned the city centre of Oslo was an arena for work, flanked by selected cultural and representative institutions, whereas recreation, consumption and domesticity were activities that should take place outside the urban core. In the early 1970s, however, such binary divides between production and consumption was already obsolete, and while the grand plans for a high-rise Vaterland collapsed, the vision of a high density and mixed-use urban area prevailed. Hence, as we enter the Vaterland competition of 1982 won by LPO, the rediscovery and subsequent recolonization of the urban core was well under way.

The most evident spatial consequence of the shifts in terms of socio-cultural preference and political-economic practice taking place in Oslo at the time was probably found in the harbour front transformation project Aker Brygge, developed parallel to the Vaterland competition and subsequent realization. Built with reference to traditional urban forms and fronted by promenades and restaurants, the area was a neo-liberal omen of the decades to come, as in the case of so many other inner-city brownfield harbour fronts throughout the world. While Aker Brygge was a private venture that explored the synergic potential in combining leisure-based consumption and immaterial forms of production, the Vaterland development seemed to illustrate a more subtle shift taking place within planning: After decades of urban renewal and grand-scale infrastructural meta-narratives, project-based planning again placed architecture at the forefront of urban development. And from the mid-eighties, downtown Oslo was buzzling with new real estate projects fronted by more or less ambitious architectural expressions. As architecture went “urban design,” building form would play a far more decisive role in urban development than traditional synoptic planning ideals had allowed for, as in the case of LPOs 1982 proposal Bill. Mrk. Sentraltwhich in modern parlance would be translated with a hashtag as “#central”.

THE ZOOLOGICAL GARDEN

LPO’s answer to the competition call was to introduce a collection of architectural “types” that were assigned different tasks within the scarce urban fabric of Vaterland: Towards the borough Grønland in the east, LPO proposed a perimeter housing block with a narrow pedestrian street mall linking up with the adjacent city northwards, later baptized “Smalgangen (“the Narrow Corridor”).   In front of it, along Schweigaards gate, the architects placed a long, perforated structure, segmented by the “flyover” Nylandsveien. This elongated commercial building known as Oslo M contained the new bus station, shielded the block towards the road and rail infrastructure and through different means mediated between the area’s various ground floor levels.[7]Westwards, the structure concluded in a slim, needle-like tower programmed as a landmark and congress hotel, flanked by a mosque and Islamic cultural centre. Adjacent from the hotel, facing the city, was the byhall,in the shape of a squared grid. Where possible, the ground floor was landscaped to scale the ramps and bridges penetrating the area. The most radical representation from the competition was probably the continuous facade running from Tøyenbekken in the east to Lybekergata in the west, its scale and features echoing the preceding Vaterland development proposal in more than one way.[8]

Together, the formal simplicity and clear agency of the various buildings combined, resulted in a potent architectural narrative illustrated forcefully through a set of plans, sections and axonometries: The city block and pedestrian street represented local communities, the bus station building housed commercial interests, the congress hotel accommodated visitors, and the mosque catered for spiritual needs in the multicultural city. Lastly, the byhall: A meeting place and stage for events and spectacles, crowned the project. As a whole, the project was amassed by its composition, and woven together by walkovers and ramps, bridging and scaling the area’s omnipresent infrastructure.

The municipal idea of a multi-functional city was a precondition for the competition. While the Islamic Culture Centre project and location was a given premise, the call sought for spatial solutions regarding the bus-terminal and a new congress hotel but contained beyond that few restraints or concrete demands beyond that. Within a framework of what by today’s standards would be considered crude zoning rules, the resulting zoning plan directly reflected the mass build-up of the winning proposal. The by now iconic competition entry was drawn in three days and consisted of eight pencil-drawn A3 sheets, drawn in scale 1:1000 and scaled up to 1:500 for the A1-format presentation boards – something that only bolstered the typological clarity of the scheme. Through this upscaling, project ideas became manifested as architectural objects, untainted by articulation, details and motifs. For LPO, the plan was like a zoological garden of animal buildings, all with different habitats, needs and skills, linking the east and west of the city. For the municipality, the project manifested a high-profile, mixed-use, high-density urban design that pushed atall the right buttons – retail, offices, housing, infrastructure attractions, and an image to bolster the capital’s identity. 

In the reworked zoning plan underlay of 1984, the project had increased not only in density but also in terms of precision: The modified proposal had shredded off some of its 1960s modernist heritage, becoming instead rendered as a more clearly defined and articulated composition of architectural objects. Within the plan, the congress hotel had expanded to a more realistic (if less aesthetic) size. In the centre, the Akerselva river was granted breathing space, as part of a new square called Grønlands Torg. To the east, the pedestrian street Smalgangen concluded in a district square (bydelstorg), as a mediator between the new and the old city.[9]And to the west, the multipurpose building that would become Oslo Spektrum had been upscaled and provided with its characteristic round shape. Compared with the competition project, Spektrum now played an even greater role in the plan, both in terms of its programme and formal disposition. Except for the rotation of the curved facade towards the west while its main entrance remained facing the hotel, the building was more or less settled.   

A TALE OF TWO BUILDINGS

In the wake of the Vaterland competition, LPO was granted two buildings in the plan: Oslo Spektrum, a building that soon would become a cherished part of downtown Oslo, and Oslo M, the bus terminal topped with offices and a shopping street that would become the city’s most controversial building. While designed by the same office, the dissimilarities between the two far exceeds merely their contrasting shapes, revealing the effect that the development model and programming can have on a building’s evolution and performance. Working on both projects simultaneously, LPO experienced this first-hand. 

While a multi-use arena was not a prescribed in the competition, it quickly became a centrepiece for the area development, made possible through the sale of properties for commercial purposes, including Oslo M. The project was granted a building committee of stakeholders, including politicians and representatives from sports associations that provided the project with popular support. The addition of sports, including handball, ice hockey, gymnastics and show jumping, further bolstered the project’s multi-use framework. However, while the latter helped anchor the project locally, it was the opportunity to host larger concerts and events that in turn would secure the project’s success. The commercial advantage represented by concerts over sports was evident in several North American arena-projects.[10]The Nassau Coliseum in Long Island had opened in 1972, while the Brendan Byrne Arena (today Meadowlands Arena) in New Jersey was completed in 1981, both alternating sport events with larger scale concerts. Still, it was the impressive Madison Square Garden (1968) that represented the most obvious parallel for the Spektrum project: Built literarily on top of public transit and situated in the city centre/downtown Manhattan, the arena had become a symbol and reference for the New York population. And as space, the Garden’s combination of intimacy and grandeur could at its best provide a collective experience that was shared by both audience and artists. So, while adding sports to a “classic” arena with a long-side stage flanked by terraces on three sides was contrary to convention, LPO found political acceptance of its cultural and commercial potential. Hence, the political provision provided by the Oslo mayor, and the enthusiasm of financial advisor Bernt H. Lund, was crucial for the project’s viability and realization.[11]

For Oslo M, or “Galleri Oslo” as it later would be known, the story was very different: Instead of evolving within a framework of political support, clarified financing and public momentum, the project developed in the context of multiple contending projects across the city centre: At the harbour, Aker Brygge was emerging as a new financial district and entertainment area, but more crucial was the decision to allow a large-scale shopping centre development to commence just west of Oslo Spektrum. The sale and upzoning of the property from housing to shopping was a deadly threat to the Oslo M public-private partnership, which countered by raising the stakes and leaning on the fiscal security provided by the municipality. It was a competition Oslo M could not win and resulted in a scandal and trial involving banks, investors and politicians. For the building, this resulted in three problems: First of all, the intended vertical and horizontal porosity of the proposal was lost, resulting in a division between the ground floor and the upper area known as “+9” that connected to the central station. Secondly, the formal sobriety of the competition project was replaced by a more insistent but less durable iconography and material use. And finally, as the city started reorienting itself towards the harbour. the organisational principles of the building, in spite of its many qualities, failed to adapt to new circumstances, unable to facilitate for the changing flows and spatial relations of the central station area.

Retrospectively, Lars Haukeland says he wished the team had managed to link the two project closers together to secure the qualities of both projects. Considering the differing political-economic contexts of the two projects, this seems like a difficult, if not impossible, task. Rather, their comparison reveals how differing production frameworks contributed to the polarization between the two, a polarization that only grew stronger over the years. Currently, as Spektrum is planned for extension, “Galleri Oslo” is facing demolition. 

UNIVERSIAL SPACES

As mentioned above, Spektrum was not originally planned to cater for sports, but was conceived as a flexible platform that could cater for a wide variety of programmes and events. It was the potential for shifting and overlapping programs that fascinated the architects, and that would turn the project into a true byhall.Lars Haukeland refers to the Dutch Agorahallsas an inspiration, that is multipurpose facilities that could harbour anything from “cat-display shows to markets.”[12]While the Dutch TEAM 10/Forum architects (Herman Hertzberger, Aldo van Eyck, Jaap Bakema) explored how social centrality could generate architectural form following structuralist principles, the architect Frank Van Klingeren reduced architectural articulation to a mere minimum. Particularly his first of in total three “agora projects”, the De Meerpaal cultural complex built in Dronten in 1967, seemed to anticipate the impact that generality, flexibility and technology would have on multipurpose urban interiors in the decades to come (it even was the location for television production, in addition to hosting theatres, markets, and exhibitions). De Meerpaal was in many ways both a realization of and anti-thesis to Cedric Price’s unrealized “Fun Palace”: While the latter was specked with culture and set in an ephemeral structure, De Meerpaal was inherently a climatized void, an empty square whose architecture relied entirely on its fluctuating programme and serendipities of social encounters taking place. A similar void is found in Mies van der Rohe’s iconic 1953 Convention Hall Project proposal, aiming for a “universal space of complete adaptability” through sheer size and monumentality.[13]

But while De Meerpaal was proportioned for a local community and the convention hall was designed for mass gatherings, Spektrum was conceived as a black box, not a big box, and was, like the former, potentially scale-less on the inside: Through its technical ceiling of traverse bridges, cranes and elevators, the interior has the spatial plasticity to stage shifting public spectacles on a large scale. Augmented by its retractable terrasses on a concrete sole dimensioned for trucks, the ceiling constitutes a (literal) deus ex machinain the building, kept in place by the grossformof its 180-degree amphitheatre, related to and inspired by the Greek theatres of Taormina and Epidaurus.[14]This also applied to the ascending seating arrangements, which together with the stage orientation along the long side of the arena gave an impression of intimacy and thus also intensity. The impact of this gesture – a grand urban theatre that almost was forcedin place, rotated until it found hold and fixed to its surrounding tissue with infrastructural tentacles and a 300-meter curved facade towards the city core – can be seen as an architectural and ideological statement. In the case of Spektrum, the driving forces of intention seems to surpass both the limitations of context and compromise.  

Considering the public domain of cities as the stage of a theatre might be a worn analogy.[15]But the theatrics of Spektrum goes beyond what can be contained in its black box amphitheatre. In this regard, LPO might have more in common with British Archigram and Cedric Price than with the Dutch structuralists: In Spektrum, the ambiguous and the mechanical are integral to its structure, and a valid part of its symbolism and iconography, without reducing it to staged representationor as a tool to justify form. The accentuation of what in Norwegian is called bruk– of usage – permeates the project from traverse cranes to its exterior décor, where the “tattoos” mirror not only the city it is embedded within, but also its interior.[16]

KISSING ARCHITECTURE

In 1989, after 93 years of brick production, it was decided to close Alna teglverk. The brickwork’s last commission was to complete the production of 400 000 bricks for the Spektrum facade, orchestrated by artist Guttorm Guttormsgaard and ceramicist Søren Ubisch. Their approach to the ornamentation of the building was as comprehensive as the built result, although “ornamentation” might be the wrong word: The brick cladding on the arena’s concrete walls is as much a part of the building as its windows or staircases. For Guttormsgaard and Ubisch, the brickworks was the vehicle for translating ideas into concrete materials, and the process of exploring and altering of the brick production process was as important as the end product itself. After developing and experimenting with various painting, glazing, stamping and roller techniques, the two artists’ commenced with the manufacturing process.[17]Batches of bricks were sorted on pallets and hand painted, others were produced as larger chunks that were stamped with patterns, glazed and subdivided, mixing artistic crafting with production line logistics. After completion, blueprints were developed in collaboration with LPO’s Svein Dybvik. The drawings were based on the categorized and labelled material at hand, where the pallet and chunk formats guided the design. The meticulously drafted facade drawings are works in their own right, displaying a combination of patterns, figures and silhouettes to be mounted on site by the bricklayers. The combination of manual and industrial production techniques applied to the production and mounting of the curved facade provided “a joyful absence of machine symmetry” – a richness resulting from the combination of structure and disruption, of the concrete and the abstract, of the mass-produced and the custom-made. These binary tensions can be said to saturate the 7000 square meter canvas of the building, providing it with a form of monumentality that increases proportionally to the patination of time. The grandeur of the building is further sustained by the modular shifts in the facade that creates an optical illusion of vertical perspective – a trick also inherited from its Greek forerunners. For Guttormsgaard and Ubisch, the facade became a “magical carpet” of stories and statements, metaphorically transparent towards the building’s interior. But it can also be regarded as a playful adaption of Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Paulsson’s brickwork on the Oslo Town Hall (1931–1950), which seem draped in a tapestry or wallpaper of brick, set in subtle, brown rectangular and diagonal patterns across its facades (Knowing that the artists were allowed to use the town hall tower studio to develop the project makes the parallel obvious). And while Spektrum lacks the town hall’s exterior plazas that provide a breathing space for taking in the building, the shifting experience of detail and texture based on distance are qualities shared by both.         

In her pamphlet Kissing Architecture, Sylvia Lavin explores the intimacy between architecture and art as a form of sensuality with the potential to produce sensation and engage with the environment in ways that buildings often lack. While Lavin’s kiss often refers to projections and multimedia installations, the analogue screen that makes out Spektrum’s curves illustrates the intricacies embedded in such a coupling:

 A kissing exterior surface then, a surface that performs an entanglement of architecture with another, that pushes architecture out beyond its own envelope to risk exploding into something else, that  – to select just one of many possibilities of what can happen to an exterior – entices fluttering where there is usually just fixity, permits the building that remains behind and within the lot line to outperform itself.[18]  

However, if Spektrum “outperforms itself” through its art, it works both ways: Spektrum is not a canvas, rather it is a composition of geometry, proportion and organization, in which artistic expression is articulated through a dialectic process with the building itself. This, I believe, is among the true insights one can gain from the project. 

100.000 BRICKS 

In the 1980s, the Vaterland plan was by many perceived as inherently being a “modernist” development.[19]In an era reinventing the past to locate new ways forward, the byhall’s role as a “foreground project” could be interpreted simply as a form of modernist object-fetishism. But although it was Oslo M that eventually would be labelled with the “po-mo” sticker, the adjacent Spektrum became the project that represented true architectural innovation. By interpreting “post-modern” conceptions of urbanity without receding to pastiche and crude symbolism, LPO transformed the slightly romantic byhallconcept of the past to a compact and commercially adept showground for the future. Behind the building’s disarming exterior bubbled a celebration of the volatility and temporality represented by globalized event culture, as kin to OMA’s “Piranesian spaces” of the 1989 “Euralille” project as the French “Maisons de la culture” and Dutch structuralist “agoras” of the preceding decades.[20]It is this vibrancy that seem to saturate the building, at different speeds: On one level, its swiftly shifting programme, where, in a matter of hours, rehearsals become concerts becomes ice hockey matches – results in abrupt intensities in and around the building with a public pulse that resonates throughout the city. On another level, the genesis and subsequent patination of its facade becomes an unfolding narrative that in bits and parts is revealed from experiencing it.

Recently, the interior also has been refurnished more in line with the architectural intention. Thus, as the building is worn, some of its original ideas and intentions seem to reappear and become reconstituted. This also applies to the unresolved “backpack” of offices over the building’s main entrance, an unsettled compromise that LPO now is granted another shot at, through the planned vertical extension of the building. And as luck would have it; there is still a stock of 100 000 bricks remaining, waiting to be combined and recombined in a new addition, or edition,of Oslo Spektrum.

In a recent promo video for the Norwegian hip-hop duo Karpe’s concert in Spektrum in August 2021, the two musicians, seated on donkeys, watch as Spektrum launches from the ground and transforms into a literal spaceship. A simple analogy as it may be, the metaphor is as fitting as any: As an architectural, but also pop-cultural icon, the best way to interpret Spektrum can be that of a transformable vessel, not only as “work” but as “work in progress”. investment


[1]Geir Raakvag, «Hysteri med historisk sus,» DagsavisenApril 12, 2013.

[2]Other important indoor arenas at the time included Skedsmohallen in Lillestrøm, and Ekeberghallen east of the city centre in Oslo.

[3]According to Lars Haukeland of LPO, Elton John would rent Spektrum for rehearsing new shows before launching a tour. Lars Haukeland in conversation with the author, Oslo, June 16, 2020.

[4]Albena Yaneva argues that regarding “society” and “architecture” as separate constructs render the former isolated as domain, and the latter reduced to a static artifact. Albena Yaneva, Mapping Controversies in Architecture(Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2012), 2.

[5]«Kommunenbygger hotell i sentrum» VG, April 26, 1946.  

[6]Francis Sejersted, Hvem skal redde city? Vaterlands-prosjektet 1954–1969(Oslo: TMV-senteret, 1990), 2.

[7]Due to the train tunnel below the city centre, the central station area was elevated nine meters above sea level, referred to as the “+9 level.”  

[8]For an expanded discourse on the Vaterland project, seeMirza Mujezinovic,The Architecture of the Urban Project(PhD diss., Oslo School of Architecture and Design, 2016).

[9]In the realized project, it is this bydelstorgthat is named Grønland Torg.

[10]According to Lars Haukeland, the Oslo mayor Albert Nordengen visited several venues on a study trip to USA. Haukeland, interview, June 2020. 

[11]Ibid..

[12]Ibid.

[13]Mark Pimlott, The Public Interior as Idea and Project(Jap Sam Books. Prinsenbeek; 2016), 171.

[14]Haukeland, interview, June 2020.

[15]Most famously argued by Richard Sennett describing the urbanity of the nineteenth century city. See Richard Sennet, Fall of Public Man, (New York: Norton, 1977).

[16]See Kjell Norvin, «The Tattooed Building», in this volume.

[17]Additionally, Guttormsgaard implemented cast works by artist Rolf Nesch that was transferred to rollers an imprinted onto bricks.

[18]Sylvia Lavin, Kissing Architecture(New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011), 38.

[19]See i.e. Ketil Kiran’s review “Flott byhall på liten tomt,” Byggekunst, no. 1-2 (1991): 38.

[20]Haukeland explains how the governmental investments in culture buildings in 1960s France led to technical innovations that informed the development of Spektrum’s ceiling systems. Haukeland, interview, June 2020.

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